With the 2011 NFL season in the books, it's time to turn our eyes to the NFL draft, and the pre-draft evaluation process. Before and after the 2012 scouting combine, we'll be taking a closer look at the 50 draft-eligible players who may be the biggest NFL difference-makers when all is said and done.
We continue this year's series with Alabama cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, who should be a very appealing prospect to a National Football League that sees more advanced press coverage concepts, and requires more from its cornerbacks, than ever before. The 6-foot-2, 186-pound Kirkpatrick has been a far more physical force in Nick Saban's championship defenses than you might expect from a quick glance at him, and there are elements of the default "pro-readiness" one assumes of any Saban-coached defensive player. However, there is some concern that the tightly wrapped Saban had to ride Kirkpatrick even more than normal to keep him motivated -- whatever it took, there's no question that Kirkpatrick sees himself as an on-field enforcer. He's a cornerback who often thinks and plays like a safety, and there are some great advantages to that. But ... it's also easy to see on tape the things that give you pause -- the same things that could keep Kirkpatrick from any shot at the top 10, and will require some serious finishing work at the NFL level.
Any team in need of an aggressive player who can play the front half of a defense with authority will love Kirkpatrick's tape. Question is, what about the back half, and the little things that separate good from great?
Pros: Tall, lanky cornerback with decent speed. Kirkpatrick is an excellent force cornerback at the line and on the edge -- not only does he have a great feel for press coverage, but he's always keeping an eye out to rebound on shorter routes and will come back up to tackle after a first receiver has taken him up the seam. As a slot corner in motion, he can cover short and intermediate routes and delivers big hits over the middle -- receivers with alligator-arm tendencies will not want to deal with Kirkpatrick in traffic. Outstanding run defender -- comes up with speed and discipline in run fits, breaks off from curl/flat responsibility and relishes contact behind the line. Extends the ballcarrier to the sideline on screens and swing passes. Good fundamental understanding of multiple responsibilities -- will read the backfield even when trailing in coverage and breaks off in combo routes. Breaks on the ball well in any coverage. Hand-fights well within the first 5 yards, but does so too much at times.
More of a man corner in college, but Kirkpatrick does display embryonic fundamentals in off and zone coverage. He'll lose receivers in the back half on seam and post routes, but he has the recovery speed to make up for some of his mistakes. Lack of experience in deep coverage could be a function of scheme to a degree -- Kirkpatrick was asked often enough to default to the second or shorter route on his side to imply a schematic constraint. In deep thirds, for example, you'd often see him take one coverage step and start running like a scalded dog for the line of scrimmage. Doesn't always show elite speed on the field, but he generally covers a lot of ground in a short time.
Cons: While Kirkpatrick is an excellent contact defender, he's far from a form tackler -- he loves to give "kill shots" with his shoulder, and more experienced NFL receivers will teach him what most every college highlight hitter eventually learns at the next level: The pro guys will eat your lunch with that stuff. He'll miss tackles and lose engagement with players because he's too busy throwing himself or somebody else around. Loses jump-ball battles too often for a player his size. Not always an assignment-correct cover man in zone -- he'll bump into his own defenders at times and fails to establish awareness in space when he's covering larger areas.
Has the physical ability to be an excellent boundary corner, but needs to be more consistent in sticking to receivers. Looks for a fight on the field when he shouldn't -- probably needs to direct his energies better on the field. Against intermediate to deep routes, Kirkpatrick will lose receivers on curls and comebacks -- he seems to have consistent trouble maintaining speed and agility with quick, short cuts. No interceptions in 2011 despite a good number of targets.
Conclusion: Like Cromartie when he came out of Florida State, Kirkpatrick is a natural press corner who alternates between impressive physical feats and occasionally startling bouts in which he seems to be a step behind the action. Kirkpatrick has far more experience than Cromartie did in a more pro-style defense and he's about 100 times more physical, but just as Cromartie's NFL career has typified the struggles common to most physically talented pass defenders who fail to grasp the fundamentals, Kirkpatrick has a lot to learn before he'll be one of the top cornerbacks at the professional level. Right now, he's got enough on the ball to merit a mid-first-round pick, but the game tapes leave one wondering if he'll live up to his potential -- or be just another very good NFL role-player. He's capable of much more, but that's up to him.
Pro Comparison: Antonio Cromartie, New York Jets
More Shutdown 50:
#19: Mark Barron, S, Alabama | #20: Cordy Glenn, OL, Georgia | #21: Riley Reiff, OT, Iowa | #22: Coby Fleener, TE, Stanford | #23: Devon Still, DT, Penn State | #24: Janoris Jenkins, CB, North Alabama| #25: Jerel Worthy, DT, Michigan State| #26: Nick Perry, DE, USC | #27: Alfonzo Dennard, CB, Nebraska | #28: Dontari Poe, DT/DE, Memphis | #29: Whitney Mercilus, OLB/DE, Illinois | #30: Brandon Thompson, DT, Clemson| #31, Dwayne Allen, TE, Clemson| #32: Jonathan Martin, OT, Stanford| #33: Bobby Massie, OT, Mississippi| #34: Andre Branch, DE/OLB, Clemson | #35: Dont'a Hightower, ILB, Alabama | #36: Chandler Jones, DE, Syracuse| #37: Stephen Hill, WR, Georgia Tech| #38: Vinny Curry, DE, Marshall| #39: Doug Martin, RB, Boise State | #40 : Mohamed Sanu, WR, Rutgers| #41: Zach Brown, OLB, North Carolina| #42: Lavonte David, OLB, Nebraska| #43: Jared Crick, DE/DT, Nebraska| #44: Alshon Jeffrey, WR, South Carolina | #45: Kirk Cousins, QB, Michigan State| #46: Orson Charles, TE, Georgia| #47: Lamar Miller, RB, Miami| #48: Shea McClellin, OLB/DE, Boise State| #49: Rueben Randle, WR, LSU | #50: Jonathan Massaqoui, OLB/DE, Troy